The Winter Beater Challenge: 10 Snow Cars for $3,000 or Less

Up in New England, if you have a nice car you don’t want to ruin in the snow, you have what’s called a Winter Beater. If you’re not so interested in getting anywhere particularly fast, your Winter Beater could be just as much fun as your nice car.

Here are the ground rules for this particular challenge:

1. The cars have to be cheap to buy, cheap to fix, and will plow into a snowbank after a quarter mile of fishtailing with minimal damage.

2. They have to be running, and inspectable in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (which is going to leave out a lot of Toyota 4Runners with rust in the frame). If it can get inspected in Mass, it can pass anywhere.

3. They have to be available, so to meet that challenge, we found all of these cars for sale in the Boston area Craigslist, for sale by owner only, and all for less than $3,000.

4. It’d be easy enough to make this list out of ten 1994 Subarus, so we’re going to find cars from other brands.

RELATED: The Wildest Snow Removal Vehicles Ever

1988 Saab 900 Convertible

Saab 9001

Asking Price: $2,900

Original bodystyle Saab 900 Convertibles are almost edging into “nice car” territory, so we present this one only because the price is right, and there’s a little rust showing on the hood, so there must be rust elsewhere, too. The temptation is to buy the Turbo, but non-Turbo 900s make damned good winter cars if you shoe them with a good set of snow tires. Before Subarus came around, the 900 was the unofficial winter car of the state of Vermont. The state issued you one when you got your driver’s license.

RELATED: Up and Over: The Wildest Snow Vehicles in History

1994 Buick Park Avenue

Buick Park Ave

Asking Price: $3,000

At 79,000 miles, this example has pretty low mileage. You can find something with around 100k in the $2,000 bracket if you’re patient. These things are ubiquitous. You drive them for three or four years, peel the license plates off and slap them on another one in similar condition. Old folks bought them by the truckload, and hung onto them forever. My nephew just bought a 98 Regency with this kind of mileage for less than $3,000, and with a set of belts and tires, it’ll be good through the next election.

1994 Buick Roadmaster Wagon

Roadmaster USE
Asking Price: $1,200

Rear drive for the winter? You bet. This one’s a little bit of a gamble because the mileage is high at 184,000, but I have one of these in the driveway with 143,000 that I bought for $3,000, and aside from minor maintenance issues, it’s been perfectly reliable. Mine has the towing package that came on all 1996 Roadmasters, which has a limited slip differential as part of the package, so even without snow tires, it’s pretty good. I just put four Glacier Grip snows on it and I’m ready to tackle anything winter has to throw at me now.

RELATED: 5 Things To Do to Prepare for a Winter Storm

1998 Audi A8L

Audi A8L

Asking Price: $2,999

The A8 is well out of the “cheap to fix” category, but I’ve always felt like for $3,000, you can buy pretty much anything you’ve ever wanted as long as you’re a gambling man. If you’ve always wanted an A8, you can buy one for three stacks, but it’s sort of like playing Russian Roulette with Christopher Walken: You have to go into it knowing he’s a lot less stable than you are. This one had the timing belt done already, which must be a $32,343,754 repair, so you’ve got that going for you.

1997 Acura Integra

Asking Price: $2,800

In the 1990s, every newly minted college graduate had one of these. For a while, they were just old used cars, but now they’re starting to come into their own as a little bit cooler. This one isn’t so cool with an automatic and beige interior, but its going to have the excellent handling of an Integra of this era, and plenty of aftermarket to have some fun with. Throw those hubcaps in the trash and go for the black steelie look. Not my particular favorite, but I’m sure some frat guy who graduated in 1994 would love it in the snow.

2001 Dodge Durango


Asking Price: $2,900

A gas-hog of epic proportion the Durango is one of a handful of four-wheel drive, four-door SUVs available under $3,000 with less than 150,000 miles. This one has 104,000 and the seller claims new brakes, tires and a tuneup. Side note: the owner has this listed as a Dodge “Derango,” which frankly, we think Dodge ought to adopt as the official name.

1992 Jaguar XJ6 Vanden Plas

1992 Vanden Plas

Asking Price: $3,000

Another one that falls outside the “cheap to fix” category, but 1992 Jaguar XJ6s have a lot to offer, especially with this example’s “fewer than 75,000 miles.” In 1990, they got the 4.0-liter inline six, with 223hp, and have a much better, Bosch-based electrical system than any Jaguar that preceded it. XJ40 Jaguars came with a ZF 4HP24E9 transmission, which can be a weak point. The Jaguar XJ8 in my garage had to have the trans replaced. Used units are pretty plentiful, but it’s not cheap if you plan on having someone else do it. With a set of snows, the XJ6 can be a fabulous winter beater. Look for rust in the frame horns before you buy, though.

1996 Mercedes-Benz C280

Mercedes C2801
Asking Price: $2,600

These W202 chassis Benzes were the last of the era when a Mercedes-Benz was built to be field-stripped beside the road by a cab driver. The C280 featured an M104 inline six that can either be the best engine you ever owned, or a nightmare of epic proportion. Head gaskets go bad and the wiring harnesses can, too. If you’re a DIY mechanic, you can fix either for a tenth the cost of paying somebody to do it, because the parts are relatively cheap. Later 1997s had improved head gaskets and wiring harnesses, if you can find one of those.

2000 Saturn L100 Wagon

Saturn 100
Asking Price: $1,750

While all your friends are crammed into Corolla Sedans all winter, opt instead for a Saturn L100 Wagon. Despite an initial product launch of Edsel-like proportions, some Saturn L-Series cars squeaked through the quality issues and have gone on to run for a decade an a half now with minor issues. This one has 153,000 on the clock, suggesting that it doesn’t have the timing chain problems that were associated with some L-Series cars with the 2.2-liter engine. For $1,750 — which you could probably negotiate down to $1,200 pretty easily — this is the car you can drive into a frozen lake and not feel bad about afterward. Studded snows, foot right to the mat everywhere you go. That’s how you drive one of these.

1990 Olds Custom Cruiser Wagon

Olds Custom Cruiser
Asking Price: $2,695

In 1990 Oldsmobile was still selling the old-school, boxy B-Body wagons and hadn’t yet switched over to the “whale body” cars that would be coming in a year. In 1990, this wagon stickered out at $27,000, about what you would’ve spent on a Suburban that year. With a super-tall axle ratio and a 307, these wagons are painfully slow, but if you can live with that, they’re about the most utilitarian vehicle this side of an F-150. Those turbine aluminum 5×5-lug-spaced wheels on this one are rare, only available on this car and its Buick Electra counterpart. The Olds hubcaps are super-rare, and probably worth a few hundred bucks alone to an Olds collector.

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